From Petrified Forests to Poor People

One of the golden rules of blogging, is that you should have just one clear message per post.

Watch in awe as I break the norm and boldly ignore that piece of advice.

I’m unashamedly going to combine two points in a single post – but you’re all such smart people, you’ll be fine (golden rule number two – flatter your readers).

Let’s begin in Arizona’s Petrified Forest.

A natural wonder of the world, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park contains the remains of a forest, stunningly fossilised and preserved from 225 million years ago. The park is hugely popular and visited by over half a million people a year, the problem is that many of them decide to take just a small reminder of their visit home with them – resulting in 14 tons of fossilised wood fragments being removed from the park every year by visitors !

Needless to say, worried by this rapid erosion, the management quickly put up signs to deter visitors from taking fragments: “Your heritage is being vandalised every day by theft losses of petrified wood, amounting to 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.

The results weren’t quite what they hoped for . . . losses went up significantly !

By suggesting the idea of stealing wood fragments to visitors, indicating that everyone else was doing it, and also raising the prospect that, if you wanted a wood fragment you better get one quick before they’re all gone, the signs were a Triple Fail !

Bottom line – people knew it was wrong, but when they thought everyone else was doing it, they did it anyway.

This is an example of  a perceived ‘social norm‘ trumping a moral or ethical belief. The evidence shows that we’re all far more likely to be influenced by the behaviour of others around us, than we are by our own moral or ethical code. We’re a social animal and it’s not surprising we like to fit in, rather than stand out.

With the help of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona University, the park were able to design new signs highlighting that though the vast majority of visitors treated the park with respect, a small minority were damaging it for everyone else. These were much more successful – turns out we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves by doing something we know (or think) most of our peers would disapprove of.

Which brings us on to my second point = the fight against poverty.

We know there are a lot of poor people in the world, whether in far off countries, or down the road.

We may be aware there are around a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. That 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. That 50,000 people a day die from poverty related causes. These facts can seem very abstract when we see them printed on a screen, can’t they.

If you regularly read Next Starfish I’m sure you likely share my strong desire to combat poverty and tackle the various inequalities and injustices in the world. You probably share my ethical and moral perspective that ‘something must be done’.

But the chances are also most likely, that you’re probably living a fairly comfortable life yourself – food, clean water, warm home, healthcare, education, new mobile phone and all the rest. The odds are that you’re also surrounded by friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives who are similarly living fairly comfortable lives . . . for many of us, this is our ‘norm’.

If both the above are true, but you’re still currently giving most of your spare money away to tackle poverty and injustice across the world, then you’re acting 100% in alignment with your ethical and moral principles, and, just between you and me, you’re quite a remarkable person.

If like the rest of us you give a little of your spare money, and then sit wringing your hands about poverty, before going off to buy a new car, iphone or expensive pair of shoes, then it might just be you’ve been influenced by the ‘norm’ of living in a (relatively) affluent society and having (relatively) affluent friends to compare yourself against.

This isn’t meant to be a guilt-trip. Just an observation that we all tend to judge and compare ourselves, our lives and our behaviour, with reference to what we see around us. I don’t think we should feel bad about this – norms are normal after all.

But there are two things I’d suggest.

If, both individually and as a society, we were more familiar with the lives of the poor, then ‘normal’ would begin to shift , perhaps we’d begin to appreciate what we have a little more, want a little less, and maybe be a bit more generous with our wealth as a result.

Secondly, we should also realise we’re part of someone else’s ‘norm’. Maybe if we visibly changed our behaviour, perhaps by being personally more generous towards the poor, giving where possible, or supporting aid policies etc, those around us might feel just a little more inclined to do some of the same things themselves.

With that in mind, I’ve linked to a few powerful short films illustrating the lives of the poor around the world (both far and near) below.

Why not help shape your friends and colleague’s ‘norms’ by sharing some with them.


Photo by PetrifiedForestNPS via Flickr

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Voices From Ethiopia

Guest post by Siobhan Sheerin who has recently returned from Ethiopia after three months working with the organisation Concern Worldwide.

I’ve been in Ethiopia for almost three months now, working for Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide, but sadly, I’ll soon be saying goodbye to Addis and returning home.

I’ve worked for Concern for over two years, based mainly in their London office, but I’ve always been eager to see Concern’s work on the ground first-hand.  I was just waiting for the right opportunity to take the plunge.

Like many people, I was deeply affected seeing the suffering of millions of people during last year’s devastating drought in East Africa, when Ethiopia was hit pretty badly.  So when the opportunity came to work here, I knew this was my chance. I upped sticks, leaving behind my comfortable existence in the UK.

The first thing that hit me was the altitude. At a height of around 7,500 feet, Addis is the world’s second highest capital. For the first week, I flipped between exhaustion and a strange feeling, similar to being underwater, and even the smallest exertion left me gasping for breath. Thankfully, this ‘air hunger’ as the locals call it, soon subsided.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has suffered from food insecurity for many years. Most people rely entirely on local agriculture, so when the are late, or fail, like they did last year and again this year, people’s harvests fail and they simply don’t have enough food to eat. It’s a cycle that, sadly, keeps repeating itself.

One of the worst affected areas over the last two years is the Amhara region in the north. Concern works across this entire area, in some of the most hard to reach mountainous villages, delivering emergency nutrition, providing seeds and livestock, and helping people get access to clean water.

Access to water is a real issue in the area, with many walking for hours every day just to get to the nearest water source. It was while in Bugna, a remote village in the Amhara, that I saw both young children and old ladies carrying 25kg water containers on their backs, and clambering barefoot up mountains that I could barely manage wearing my sturdy walking boots!

The inaccessibility of these areas in the north has to be seen to be believed. Getting around by car is almost impossible at times, and in many places travelling by foot or donkey is the only option. The people here eke out their living from the land – life is hard.

Yet despite living in extreme poverty, the people don’t just want hand-outs, they are resilient and hard-working – and want to help themselves and build sustainable lives.

People like Getu, who had received a container of potato seeds from Concern and planted them all himself in one day. He proudly showed me his field, and told me his first priority was to feed his family, with any surplus being sold at the market.

Or like Shewaye, the young mother whose children were treated for malnutrition by Concern last year, and who wanted to display her newly-acquired knowledge of breastfeeding with an impromptu practical demonstration.

Of course I’ve found some of it hard going. Two bouts of horrendous food poisoning had me floored for weeks, and wishing I was back at home, and the poverty I’ve seen on the streets of Addis is distressing. But I can’t really complain . . . I’ve never had to walk for four hours to get water, then carry it barefoot back uphill, and I’ve never worried about where my next meal is coming from.

The rainy season here is now in full swing, which makes going out difficult at times,  and I’ve never really gotten to grips with the staple food injera, a sort of sour pancake eaten at every meal. But there are many things I will miss now I’m leaving: hearing hyenas howling in the distance when I am dropping off to sleep, my daily commute through a bustling market whilst negotiating donkeys, chickens, goats and shouts of ‘farangi’ (foreigner), the hordes of children keen to practice their English and shake my hand; and of course, the people.

It has been the Ethiopian people who have made the real impression on me, particularly Concern’s Ethiopian staff.  Generous and friendly, and rightly proud of their country, my colleagues work long hours in remote areas, travelling on foot to help people because there is simply no other way.  The staff in Bugna have to drive for almost three hours to the nearest town just to use the internet, which certainly put my office IT problems into perspective.

My Concern Ethiopian colleagues are true humanitarians.  The work they do here makes a huge difference. They are saving lives – helping people to help themselves out of poverty, feed themselves and their families and make a living.

I’m proud to have been a part of the work they do, even for just a short time.

Photo by treessfts via Flickr

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The Hunger Games ?

The world is watching the 2012 Olympics – me included – an amazing spectacle, and so many remarkable personal stories.

And while the eyes of the world are on the London Olympics, something else remarkable is scheduled for the last day.

A Hunger Summit.

I think it’s important to be critical of our Governments when they get things wrong, as they so often seem to do, but I also think it’s at least as important to give them a bit of a pat on the back when they get it right – and this is one of those moments.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently said:

“It’s really important that, while the eyes of the world are on Britain and we are going to put on this fantastic show for the Olympics, we remember people in other parts of the world who, far from being excited about the Olympics, are actually worried about their next meal and whether they are getting enough to eat.”

He may never have been righter.

Despite what we might assume, the world has made tremendous strides in tackling extreme of poverty, hunger and malnutrition over the last few decades. The total number of hungry people in the world fell from 850 million in 1971 to 780 million in 1997. This might not seem that impressive, until you consider world population also increased from 3.7 billion to 5.9 billion over the same period !

Unfortunately things have changed.

The number of hungry people in the world is rising again, and now stands at around 925 million, with many millions more threatened with food insecurity from rising prices.

Population has continued to rise, now standing at more than 7 billion, with another 219,000 more mouths to feed every day.

The price of oil has massively increased, from around $12 a barrel in 1976, to over $90 today – affecting our fuel intensive agriculture and transport, and pushing costs higher.

Several formerly productive parts of the world are struggling to find enough water, or retain enough soil quality to maintain yields. Floods, droughts, natural disasters and conflict have all also caused significant disruption.

Several countries, most notably the US, have begun using farmland to grow crops for fuel, rather than food production.

Demand for food has also been increasing, as the world’s better off have been eating more and more, and more meat in particular. Westernised diets are increasingly popular and affordable in China, India, Brazil and many other developing countries.

It’s not just China of course, the rest of the rich world has been eating more too.

In 2008 1.4 billion people across the world were overweight, 500 million of them obese.

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true: half the world is starving, while the other half is over weight !

We’re not just passive observers – we’re all partly responsible.

Our governments and food companies have negotiated unfair trading agreements with poor world producers, and as individuals we eat too much, waste too much, and focus on buying our food cheaply too much, oblivious to the consequences for the producer.

Keep watching and enjoying the Olympics – but spare a thought for the world’s hungry who have other things on their mind.

Perhaps take 5 minutes out of your busy day to fire off a quick email to your MP. Perhaps tell your friends about the proposed food summit or post something on your next Status update – don’t let this opportunity to promote food justice just pass by.

Of course , we all know our Governments are often hopeless at making and sticking to meaningful commitments. Many NGOs and charitable organisations are a little worried about what measures may be agreed at the summit. More private business involvement ? More promotion of GM ? Perhaps not ideal, but I personally have no problem with either, so long as more hungry people get fed, and the poor are not exploited.

We can also make a difference through our own lives.

If we bought a little less meat, bought a little more Fairtrade, and wasted a little less of the food we bought, then global markets would adjust, and a little more food would be left on the plates of the world’s hungry poor.

Besides, most of us could do with eating a little less anyway (me included).

If you’re too hardened to motivated by the plight of starving children to act, then I saw a couple of news reports this week that might ‘press a couple of different buttons’ for you . . . I’ll let you read them for yourself: ONE and TWO.

Photo by Alexander Kachkaev, via Flickr

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Stories of Poverty from Just Down the Road

Sometimes it almost seems easier to focus our attention on the poverty and problems far away, than that right on our doorstep.

Perhaps we’re uncomfortable by its proximity, or scared-off by the inevitable links with alcohol, drugs, crime and abuse. Maybe the remoteness of poverty far away in the developing world seems somehow less challenging to us than the problems of our own communities, which can seem difficult and complex.

The truth is of course that all poverty is difficult and complex to resolve, and it can be easy to forget that across the rich world there are millions of people living lives of hardship and deprivation – perhaps just a few streets away, unseen behind closed doors.

In the UK over 13 million people, live on less than 60% of the median national income level, the most commonly cited level of relative poverty, including 1.3 million children living in severe poverty. While not the absolute poverty seen in the developing world, millions of families routinely have to choose between heating their home and food, who can’t clothe their children properly, struggle with social exclusion and unemployment and all too often find themselves weighed down with debt.

For those of us living more comfortable lives, this poverty in our midst can sometimes be difficult to understand.

Listening to the stories of the poor themselves, often gives the best insight:


Claire – from Hull (from Barnados)

“My daughter Ruby (age 4) knows – she could see me worrying about it. I couldn’t believe it when she said ‘don’t worry mummy I won’t have a birthday present this year.’ That made me cry so much, I felt so guilty for not being able to give them more.”

Claire lives with her four children, aged 18 to 4, who don’t have the same opportunities as many others, sometimes missing out on birthday presents, the right school uniform or school trips.


Denise – from Birmingham (from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation)

Denise is a single parent with two children, who works 16 hours a week. Due to a delay in her payment one week, she found herself with no money at all left to give her children one Monday morning so they could have food at school. Denise knew she had £3 left in her bank account, but that the local cash machine would only pay out multiples of £10.

Denise had to phone her Mum and ask her to bring over some bus fare so that Denise could get the bus to the nearest branch of the bank, and withdraw her £3, so she could give her children (who were still waiting to go to school) £1 each for lunch.


Anthony - from Tyne and Wear (from the BBC)

“I just don’t know what the future holds for us as a family”

“Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with myeloma cancer. It meant I had to give up my job to look after her. At the time I was paying £40 per month dual fuel, then it went up, the company told me I would have to go to £80 pounds per month. I have recently received another letter saying I now need to pay £115 per month, from my £220 per month carer’s allowance. Needless to say my savings have disappeared over the last two years.

The better news is my wife is in remission and she will return to her part-time job at the local school. We do not know yet how we will pay the bills. In the last couple of months my gas, water, electric, media services, TV Licence and life and home insurances have escalated – and now my mortgage, but my carer’s allowance has not changed!”


Ultimately eradicating poverty, whether globally or locally, will require a significant change to our systems and structures, but in the meantime there are many national or local groups already working to make a real difference, and transform the lives of those most in need . . .

. . . you might want to consider lending them your support.

Shelter, End Child Poverty, The Joseph Rountree Foundation, Christians Against Poverty,  Foodbank, Action Aid.

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Living on a Landfill

In the rich West we usually forget where all the waste we throw away ends up, unless there is a landfill site not too far away from our house, in which case we might be concerned about potential health consequences, or the occasional unpleasant smell.

Yet around the globe hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, including many children, live and work on landfills and rubbish dumps, scraping a living from what the rich of their own societies throw away.

All live in desperate poverty with little in the way of health care or education, most are illiterate, and some will never have ever left the landfill on which they live.

In Indonesia over 2,000 families survive and make a living on the Bantar Gebang landfill outside Jakarta, typically earning the equivalent of £2.20 a day from the recyclables they scavenge. In Nicaragua, over a 1,00o people live and work on the huge La Chureca landfill, in a community which includes a school. At the Stung Meanchey landfill in Cambodia, 2,000 resident workers, more than 600 of them children, work, live, eat and play among the rubbish.

The disturbing winner of the CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the year 2011 competition depicts two young children clutching each other on a landfill in Kathmandu, Nepal. In the words of the photographer, Chan Kwok Hung:

“Every day they searched the junkyard for something useful that they can resell for money so they can buy food. If they don’t find anything their grandmother blamed them seriously. Unfortunately, they had found nothing for a few days, the little boy felt very hungry. I gave them some money and a biscuit after taking this photo. But who knows who will help them afterwards.”

The videos below show a child’s eye view of a life lived on two of the world’s landfills.

Photo by Marco Bullucci via Flickr

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